ST. PAUL, Minn. The Minnesota Wild transformed their defensive unit before Monday's NHL trade deadline and the intent was clear the league's 29th ranked offense is going to get a boost from the back end.
In three separate trades since Friday, Minnesota general manager Chuck Fletcher moved three defensive players who had played a total of 1,186 games in a Wild sweater. In exchange for defense, Minnesota is hoping it received back players who can help turn defense into offense.
"We want to play a game where we execute well from the back end and deliver the puck up to our forwards as quick as possible," Wild coach Mike Yeo said Monday. "We're not looking for defensemen, necessarily, to get the puck and skate end-to-end, but what we are is a group that just makes a good first pass, executes well, gets the puck to our forwards as quick as possible. And I think that's how you force teams to deal with your speed the best.
"You look at how, when we're playing our best hockey, what are we doing? We're getting pucks in behind their D' and we're getting in on the forecheck and we're playing in the offensive zone. And in order for that to happen, there's a few steps before that and they usually involve the defensemen touching the puck."
Minnesota traded disgruntled defenseman Marek Zidlicky to the New Jersey Devils on Friday in what was the beginning of a series of moves that completely altered the look of the Wild's defensive pairings. In a stunning move Monday, Fletcher traded long-time defenseman Nick Schultz to the Edmonton Oilers, getting former Bloomington Jefferson high school star Tom Gilbert, another defenseman, back in the deal.
Just before the deadline, Fletcher then sent defenseman Greg Zanon to the defending Stanley Cup Champion Boston Bruins in exchange for 23-year old defenseman Steven Kampfer. Minnesota forward Brad Staubitz was also claimed on re-entry waivers by the Montreal Canadiens on a busy Monday.
With the Wild in 12th place and five points out of the 8th spot in the Western Conference, Fletcher believes he's kept his team competitive for this season, while also keeping an eye on how they want to play in the future.
"There's a fascination this time of year with the terms buyers and sellers," Fletcher said. "I think if you look at the trades we made, all three of them, all of them we feel can help our team right nowWe were not looking to dump players off our team just to take back draft picks. We had some opportunities. I don't want to get you guys speculating, but it was a non-starter. We weren't interested in being sellers'. All the moves we made, we feel had a present component and future component and we're satisfied with that."
Fletcher said trading Schultz for Gilbert was a matter of two teams trying to find defensemen to fit a specific need. The stay-at-home defenseman Schultz goes to a young Edmonton team filled with talented forwards. Gilbert is a puck-moving defenseman, who had three goals and 14 assists with Edmonton this season to help Minnesota's struggling offense.
He played for Wilkes-Barre in 2006-07 when Fletcher was the general manager for the minor-league team. Fletcher also recalled talking to Edmonton general manager Steve Tambellini about trading for Gilbert three summers ago when he became the Wild's general manager.
"He's a guy that can play in any situation," Fletcher said. "He moves the puck well and he does have an offensive component, but I don't know that I would characterize him as purely an offensive defenseman. I don't think that's fair to his talents. We feel he is a guy that can log big minutes, can move the puck well and certainly transitioning the puck from the defensive zone to the offensive zone is an area we wanted to improve and we feel we're better at that today."
Schultz and Gilbert are both 29-years old and signed through the 2013-14 season. Schultz's annual cap hit is 3.5 million, while Gilbert has a cap hit of 4 million. Gilbert has scored 33 goals and has 125 assists in his 384 career NHL games and is excited to be coming back to the Twin Cities where his family still lives.
"I grew up watching the North Stars," Gilbert told the Wild's team Web site. "I was there when they didn't have a team. I saw the Wild come about, I think, it was the end of my high school career. Minnesota's always had a big spot in my heart and to go back there and play and be a part of, and now its reality. So it's a lot of excitement for me and my family right now."
Zanon, 31, is an unrestricted free agent after the season and Kampfer is a restricted free agent after next season. Kampfer 5-foot-11, 197-pounds has played in 10 games for the Bruins this season and has two assists and a plus-6 rating. A fourth-round draft choice in 2007 by the Anaheim Ducks, he played 38 games last year during his rookie season with Boston and had five goals and five assists. Fletcher said he would be assigned to the Houston Aeros of the American Hockey League.
The Wild are tied for 11th in the league in fewest goals allowed, but have scored only 139 goals, just six more than the league's worst offensive team, the Los Angeles Kings. They hope the moves will help the offense.
"We can talk all you want about defending, defending, defending, but if you execute in those situations then you no longer have to defend and that's the biggest thing for us," Yeo said. "We have to continue to work and continue to find ways to get better from the back end, just executing and moving the puck up, advancing the puck up."
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